What’s it All About?

Now that Thomas Harris has his marching orders set in stone on his Foolscap Global Story Grid in terms of his External and Internal Content Genres, what he’ll do now is write down the obligatory scenes and conventions of the serial killer thriller in shorthand to remind himself of his “must haves.”

Obligatory Scenes and Conventions: 1. Crime/MacGuffin 2. Villain makes it personal 3. Red Herrings 4. Clock 5. Speech in prais of villain 6. Hero at mercy of villain scene 7. False Ending.

Looking at this list of seven, Harris understands that each of these elements should be literally “on stage, on the page” so that the reader is clearly satisfied that they’ve been delivered. They can’t be off stage and reported by a third party or the reader will find himself vaguely disappointed by the Story.

So, we’ll need at least seven scenes to deliver what is expected in a thriller:

  • A scene/chapter that establishes the central crime and its inherent MacGuffin (the big “want” of the villain)
  • A scene/chapter that establishes that the villain has made his crimes personal in relation to the investigator
  • A scene/chapter that establishes at least one false lead/red herring
  • A possible scene/chapter that clearly establishes a clock
  • A scene/chapter that establishes the gravitas/praises the intelligence and/or power of the villain
  • A scene/chapter that puts the hero at the mercy of the villain
  • A scene/chapter that is a false ending

These seven scenes are extremely concrete assignments. They break down an extremely intimidating task into clear, doable bits. While you may end up writing twenty versions of each of these scenes before you find the perfect fit for your Story, understanding what these scenes are and why they need to be in your thriller leapfrogs you into action.

Write them down on your one page foolscap so that you never forget their importance. And then make damn sure that you have them in your final manuscript. I’ll show you how to do this when you map out the final Story Grid. I’ll pinpoint exactly where Harris satisfied these conventions…the exact scenes themselves.

Now that we have some momentum, let’s keep moving down our Foolscap.

Harris now has to make global decisions about the point of view and generally what his controlling idea/theme will be for the entire novel.

Let’s start with Point of View.

This choice is relatively simple for a thriller. I’d suggest either one of two.

You can write a thriller in first person from the lead character’s point of view. The effect is literally having your lead character tell the Story to the reader. I went to see Hannibal Lecter… for example.

The advantages of first person are the immediate establishment of a tight bond between the reader and a character. Gillian Flynn does this extraordinarily well in Gone Girl for both her female and male lead characters.

The limitations of first person, though, are the inability to narrate a scene where your lead character is not present. Some writers get around this limitation by having multiple first person Storylines, like Gillian Flynn does. Others find that a singular and direct approach aids them in creating tension. First person is a perfectly valid, and when done well, an extremely compelling choice. Years ago I worked on a police procedural novel called Eleven Days by Donald Harstad, which used first person to perfection as did a more recent novel from one of my clients, The 500 by Matthew Quirk.

The alternative to pure first person is to use the wonderful old standby “cheat” called Free Indirect Style. Free Indirect Style evolved in the nineteenth century in France and other places where writers were working out “realism.” Gustave Flaubert is often credited with the first very immersive Free Indirect Style in Madame Bovary. Essentially, Free Indirect Style is a way of writing in third person, while also allowing the writer to crawl inside the brain of a character and tell the reader her thoughts. For more on it, re-read this.

Harris chose to use Free Indirect Style throughout The Silence of the Lambs.

Just to make the Free Indirect Style more clear, I refer to this technique in The Story Grid Spreadsheet and from this point forward as Omniscient Intracranial, which is sort of a wide-angle “mind-reading” vision from a single character’s point of view.

Next Harris had to choose whether he should add additional points of view other than his lead character, Clarice Starling. I’m sure he debated these choices innumerable times in his mind, but for my money, I think he came up with a perfect mix when he gave dedicated chapters to Jack Crawford, Jame Gumb, Hannibal Lecter, Catherine Martin, Senator Martin, Ardelia Mapp, and Select Police/FBI/Paramedics. Harris also used straight up third person omniscient a number of times (the journalist’s default choice to tell a Story) in order to convey an authoritarian sensibility for exposition. The effect was to drop in essential exposition in the guise of an official report or a journalist’s notes. He does this with his journalistic detailing the preparations of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team for example.

Here’s a list of all of the points of view and the number of scenes each point of view has in the Beginning Hook (BH), Middle Build (MB) and Ending Payoff (EP) of the entire novel.

Point of View in The Silence of the Lambs

Point of View in The Silence of the Lambs


Last but certainly not least, Harris may have begun writing The Silence of the Lambs with some sort of controlling idea in mind. I don’t think it tormented him to the degree that his first Lecter-themed novel, Red Dragon did. But remember that I have no idea whatsoever about his writing process. All of my analysis of his work is through the lens of The Story Grid and not in any way a nonfiction account of how Mr. Harris writes.

Let’s review again exactly what a Controlling Idea is. If you’d like more of a refresher, read this.

The controlling idea is the takeaway for the reader. It’s what the entire Story is all about. And it should be easily expressed in one sentence, describing how and why a change has occurred from the state at the beginning of the Story to the state at the end of the Story. As Harris has decided to counterbalance his external thriller plot with an internal disillusionment plot, he’s setting out to leave the reader with a sense of irony.

If he had decided just to focus on the External Plot, his controlling idea would be something like “Justice triumphs when the protagonist empathizes with the victims.” Remember that Starling doesn’t crack and break the Buffalo Bill case until she looks at the world through Fredrica Bimmel’s eyes, the first victim of Jame Gumb in Belvedere, Ohio.

But Harris set out to do more than just convey the message that we should pay as much, if not more attention to the victims of violent crime as we do the perpetrators. As a former journalist for the Associated Press and reporter on the police beat in Waco, Texas, Harris was well aware of the human infatuation with evil and of how that curiosity is exploited by tabloid journalism.

That theme was a very big element in Red Dragon.

How he chose to create deeper meaning with The Silence of the Lambs is by placing as much emphasis on Starling’s self-delusion and naiveté as he does on the thriller plot. How she changes from the beginning of the novel and how she comes to a deeper understanding of herself and her place in the world by the end is the heart and soul of the work. It’s not just the emphasis on the disillusionment plot that takes the novel into a higher realm; it’s the mechanism Harris chose to enlighten Starling that provides an even deeper irony.

At the end of the novel, Starling has saved the life of another person and saved herself from personal damnation (if she had decided to not go to Ohio against orders, Catherine Martin would have died…). But she did so not by being supported by a righteous human institution, the FBI, but through the help of evil incarnate, Hannibal Lecter. The FBI portrays itself as a force of good, but in the novel, it is in fact the opposite.

The psychopath who literally eats human beings he finds contemptible for seemingly no other reason than sport is in fact the most consistent and forthright character in the entire novel. While he certainly withholds information from her, Lecter does not lie to Starling.

He mentors her far more than Jack Crawford.

And it is through Lecter’s help that Starling is not only able to help humanity, but to find the truth about herself. The trick she learns by the end of the novel is not to silence the screams of the lambs within her, but to listen to them.

So what is the overarching controlling idea of The Silence of the Lambs? The clue for me is in Harris’ choice of title.

Starling has to accept that the shrieks of the lambs within her psyche will never go away. She can live in fear of them and do everything in her power to escape them or she can use them as fuel to compel her in her life’s work—seeking justice. On a global thematic scale, I think you can see the lambs as Jesus Christ metaphors. That is, we continually slaughter the truth, the word of Christ, the lamb of God.

We deny the truth of ourselves. We silence innocence.

Lecter, the dark prince, understands that Starling’s anger (a dark force) and her deep sense of injustice from her childhood are the very things that will enable her to unearth the truth about Buffalo Bill. Lecter literally asks Starling a number of times in the novel, “What do you do with your anger, Clarice?”

She never verbally answers the question. But she does with her actions.

She uses her anger to drive herself into the abyss…to raise the courage to battle the dragon in his own dark lair. She succeeds on one level, slaying Buffalo Bill, but loses on another.

Her pas de deux with Lecter ultimately ensures the cannibal’s escape. Perhaps the controlling idea is this: Justice prevails when the protagonist engages her inner darkness as passionately as she does her “positive” side.

Alternatively, We silence the word of God because the Devil’s diction is far more entertaining.

Or, Evil silences truth.

I suspect Thomas Harris understands the irony of a serial killer thriller as “entertainment” far better than we.

Next up?  We’ll finish the Foolscap for The Silence of the Lambs.  And next week, we’ll begin the final push…putting the The Foolscap Global Story Grid together with The Story Grid Spreadsheet to create the final Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.



27 comments on “What’s it All About?

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    In addition to teaching us this entire process in a well-plotted and systematic way, each of your posts contains something that reassures the writer in me. In this post it was this: “…you may end up writing twenty versions of each of these scenes…” And then some. Thanks Shawn!

    So…The Story Grid is at the printer now, right? Right?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      Yes! Waiting on printer’s dates etc. Will let you know as soon as we don when it will arrive in the warehouse…

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        Thanks much! Anticipation is high!

  2. You’ve given me lots to think about this morning, Shawn. I’ve come to love Tuesday and Thursday mornings and as excited as I will be to have a copy of your book in my hands, I’ll be sad when there aren’t any more new posts to read. You’ve impacted me in a powerful way. Thank you.

  3. Two questions, which you may have answered but I can’t find the answers:

    1. Is there a list of Obligatory Scenes and Conventions by genre, or are we going to build our own? (Please tell me it’s in the book.)

    2. What’s the difference between Free Indirect Style and Third-Person Omniscient?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Joel,
      The book does not include the obligatory scenes and conventions for every genre. To do that would have required a crazy amount of labor and I had to make a choice to draw the line somewhere or I’d never finish the book. I anticipate taking up the task down the road and go genre by genre. It does have them for crime, horror and thriller though. My specialties. And of course I will share what I come up with here and in future mini-books that branch out from the central core of The Story Grid methodology.

      Here’s what I suggested to Jim Starr about this a while back:
      I’d suggest that you take your favorite books of your two chosen genres (external and internal) and map out Story Grid Spreadsheets, Foolscap Global Story Grids, and finally Story Grids for both of them. Don’t fuss with the CONVENTIONS AND OBLIGATORY SCENES until you do the same things for your second favorites in each of those genres too. And perhaps your third and fourth and fifth favorites too. Then compare all of the books scene by scene…

      What you’ll find are between five or six or seven or eight or nine scenes that all of them share (those will be the obligatory scenes of that specific genre). And you’ll find other things like characters and sensibilities that they share too (those will be the conventions of that specific genre).

      For example, in a family saga, I’d suspect there is always a scene where the patriarch/matriarch and the rebellious son/daughter has a showdown. EAST OF EDEN has one. So does GIANT. So does LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, so does ORDINARY PEOPLE…

      This if fun stuff to parse out and I’ll have a blast doing it, but one of the things a writer must have is the ability to read other work, analyze it and teach themselves. The toolbox is THE STORY GRID… Apply THE STORY GRID and you will learn… You don’t need me to do this work for you Jim. You can do it. I know it. And when you do the work, share it with all of the other nerds here!

      As for the difference between Free Indirect Style and Third Person Omniscient? The difference is in “hearing” the thoughts of characters without the author reporting said thoughts.

      So third person would be something like this:
      “Hello John,” said Matilda.
      “Good day Matilda,” replied John as he lasciviously contemplated her figure.

      And Free Indirect Style would be this if the author were using the POV of Matilda:

      “Hello John” What a Creep
      “Good day Matilda,” replied John as he lasciviously contemplated her figure.

      Or this if he were using the POV of John:

      “Hello John,” said Matilda.
      “Good day Matilda,” Hot stuff

      Sorry for the crude explanation.

      1. I’m trying to imagine the impact it would have on my writing to Story Grid all of Chandler’s novels. I’m thinking that’d be a good thing.

        Explanation of FIS vs 3PO is marvelous.

      2. I’m disappointed that you’re not going to list the obligatory scenes for more genres. That was one of the things I was looking forward to and I was going to ask about that myself this morning.

        Also, what you’re calling Free Indirect Style, I’ve mostly heard called Close Third Person. It seems to be the preferred POV in many genres now.

  4. PJ Reece says:

    Whoa… this is serious study. And I reckon it’s the kind of work necessary to own any real understanding of how fiction works. I may have to buy this book, Shawn, and put it up there beside Robert McKee’s “Story.” My bookshelf groaneth under the weight of dozens of writing books, but I stopped collecting after “Story.” I’ll be happy to add yours. Cheers.

  5. Sue Coletta says:

    Book? There’s a book? Obviously, I’m new here. Off to buy the book now…

    1. Sue Coletta says:

      Been devouring your site. Oh, okay, there’s no book. THIS is the book. Then I’ll be sure to stay tuned for the next part. Thanks, Shawn!

      1. There will be a book. Shawn says it’s just gone to the printers, oh glory day.

        As a generous guy, he’s sharing the bulk of the book here. But for those of us whose shelves need more weight to keep gravity in check, there’ll be the wood block version made from trees.

        That’s what I’m getting. Until he releases the vellum version with slate covers.

        1. Sue Coletta says:

          Ah, gotcha. Thanks, Joel!

  6. Michael Beverly says:

    Hey Shawn,

    Just finished The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy, last night (at sometime after 1:00am…)

    I’m trying to fit this into the Story Grid lens and I’m totally overwhelmed at how to look at it.

    Three protagonists (spoilers coming) and so three insane external and internal intermixed stories, I’m not sure how he possibly kept it all straight.

    Danny, external story, he want’s to find the killer, basic crime story, but inside he’s dealing with his homosexuality (this is 1950’s) and before the story ends he slices his own throat.

    Mal, external story, he’s working for the DA to root out some commies, but really it’s just a ruse for the studio’s and Howard Hughes, and to further their careers. Internally, he’s destroyed his marriage, but wants to save his relationship with his step-son. He gets shot in the face before it all ends.

    Meeks, a dirty ex-cop, a complete degenerate, his external story is also like the cops working to root out the commies, but he’s totally doing it for the money, being paid off directly by his boss Howard Hughes. Meeks admits at one point in the story he’s responsible for obtaining prostitutes, drugs and doing other dirty deeds for Hughes, using all his old dirty cop connections.
    His internal story however is dealing with finding true love and being happy, and not understanding why the universe allows him to have such good fortune while actual good people, like Danny, end up dead.

    The complexity and interconnectedness of the story just about causes my mind to explode.

    Do you think that to write this kind of work you’d have to have 3 separate Story Grids and then interweave the stories?

    The Controlling Idea? Can there be a couple of them that conflict?

    Danny and Mal seem to be the good guys, they end up dead.
    Meeks is dirty, but good hearted and trustworthy in some ways, he ends up alive, with a pile of cash, but a huge hit has been put out on him, he abandons his true love and basically knows he’s probably dead.

    The biggest winner is the dirtiest cop that is part of the team, but he’s never a POV character, he murders, lies, steals, destroys careers, etc., and gets away with everything. At the end of the book, he’s untouched and untouchable, but I can’t imagine the controlling theme is about THAT, I mean, he’s barely on screen compared to the other 3 characters. And there is no reader empathy for him.


    Maybe the controlling theme was life sucks and then you die?

    Thanks again for all your encouragement.

    Side bar: I’d ask the same kind of question for Gone Girl, do you write out two complete different story grids and then mix them together?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      What you’re describing is Mini-Plot. I’d have to read it (haven’t read THE BIG NOWHERE) and think through it all to give you a compelling explanation. But generally, Mini-Plot uses multiple cast members who make up a thematic Whole. That is, if you put all of the characters together, you’d have a rumination on a central Theme. Steve Pressfield’s GATES OF FIRE is a very good example of mini-plot, multicast with a central theme. GATES OF FIRE is about the nature of COURAGE…can it be taught? At what price? What are its different expressions? etc.

      The way to begin an editorial analysis is to do the laborious STORY GRID SPREADSHEET. Just track the scenes and see how they are assembled. Once you have that monster in place, you’ll be able to have a much better understanding of the global minutiae, which will undoubtedly tell you what the big picture Foolscap is.
      All the best,

  7. Scrivener says:

    Damn! This arcane knowledge is forcing me to grow up.

    1. Michael Beverly says:

      It’s making me cry like a child.

  8. Michael Beverly says:

    Shawn, you left out a POV character and I’m curious if you did so because you thought her unimportant or if you missed it or if you considered it narration?

    The moth.

    It’s a poetic paragraph about the nature of life, but it was written from the moth’s pov. It kind of bothered me at the time, because it took me out of the book for a second to think about why he did that, but reconsidering, I suspect he wanted to make a point.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I did characterize it as “authorial POV.” What chapter does it appear? I’d like to take a look at it and get back to you.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Hey Shawn,

        End of chapter 40. Maybe I’m over thinking it, but it seemed like more than just a description of the moth.

        But this one, I’m really confused about:

        Chapter 8, you have split into two scene’s, but you don’t list Jonetta Johnson as a POV character.

        “Jonetta Johnson could spot a rookie every time.”

        I see why this would just be under “authorial pov” but I can also see how it could be another character’s pov, however minor.

        I’ve noticed that in places you get really micro, for instance, you list Picasso as an “off scene” character because Will’s face was cut up to look like a Picasso painting in description, and that seemed like a stretch.

        But I get it. Dig deep.

        That’s why I’m curious about the questions above.

        As I’m filling out my own spreadsheet, I’m often confronted with a decision, like you’ve kept scene 4 as one scene, even though Starling is at the hospital, and then later talking to Mapp back at base, while scene 8, a mere 70 words, is same chapter with scene 7, but Starling has walked out of the office, so it’s now a new scene.

        Even trying to formulate my questions here where I don’t come across as a babbling idiot is hard, because some of this stuff is so incredibly “inside baseball” that I feel I need to read Michael Lewis again and I don’t have enough hours in the day.

        I DO want to do the work and do it the best I can, I’m just a little overwhelmed about how tiny to break this stuff down into categories that are helpful.

        Thanks Shawn.

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      That is a very beautiful paragraph about the little lifes and deaths in the Insect Zoo. But I took it to be the narrator’s POV.

      1. Tina Goodman says:

        I guess LIVES is correct, not LIFES. But I think ‘lifes’ sounds better, more accurate.

      2. Michael Beverly says:

        Well, yes, that would make sense.

        But it’s jarring, at least for me, when there is a POV of a human (even if the narrator is omniscient, which obviously he is in this work) and then all of sudden there are no humans around.

        I guess I don’t like the “god is the narrator” angle.

        It happens at the end of the chapter in which Jame takes the Martin woman, the POV goes to the cat in the window (the film shows this as well, I’m not sure why).

        I understand the narrator giving the “rules for a senatorial kidnapping” as a journalistic voice omniscient and so forth, but even there, it’s awkward and comes across as an intrusion.

        But that is one mans opinion, of course. I’m not claiming it’s a right/wrong thing.

        1. Tina Goodman says:

          Maybe these are resolutions that tell us goodbye to this scene. Like the one Shawn explained to us earlier, you know, the one with the funeral director who drank a Coke and watched the FBI leave their town.

  9. Phyla says:

    Shawn, I downloaded the kindle verion of the book yesterday, couldn’t wait to get it. Just to let folks know, the tile has some symbols in the title,# ! And isn’t listed in the list of Kindle books. Simply search for the word “grid” and it pops right up. None of this affects the incredible value of this work. Just want to make sure folks know in case they don’t see the title in the list.

    1. Phyla says:

      Darn auto spell checker, I meant ” title” not “tile.”

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Phyla,
      Heard about this quirk and I’m working on having it fixed. Will let you know when a new file is ready. It’s just Html code that didn’t “take.” Appreciate your patience. And Thank You!
      All the best,

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